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Why GOOD Employees GO BAD
“Problem employees,” every organization has them, and every manager must resolve them if his organization is going to excel. So, what defines a problem employee? A problem employee consistently fails to achieve the standard of performance or behavior as defined by his manager. This definition assumes a workplace where good management is in charge. Where poor management prevails, however, it’s not easy to discern whether problem employees precede or follow a problem leader. In this latter situation, any weakness in management should be resolved first before trying to fix the problem employees. If fixing management first is not possible, then senior management should address both problems concurrently. 
Undeniably an employee’s performance must meet a minimum level of quality and productivity in order to make it cost-effective for an organization to employ him. However, he must also perform in accordance with his manager’s requirements as a member of his team. Therefore, when an employee fails to meet or exceed his manager’s performance requirements, his manager must rehabilitate, reassign, or terminate him as quickly as possible. Otherwise, he risks failing to achieve organizational objectives.
So, what makes good employees go bad? Specifically, an employee’s bad behaviors can be traced to one of three reasons.
- An employee’s aptitudes are inadequate for the job’s requirements.
- An employee’s life goals conflict with the organization’s goals.
- An employee’s mindset is incompatible with the organization’s culture.
Some may scoff at the idea that most employee problems can be traced to just these three reasons. They wonder, “Doesn’t everyone know people who’ve been fired for other reasons than these?” Indeed, if you study the “other reasons” closely, you’ll find they’re simply variations of the three listed above. This recognition is important because it helps a manager narrow his scope when trying to identify his problem employees and how to rehabilitate them. The simpler the model, the easier it is for a manager to make an assessment, and the sooner he can then get on with resolving his real problem employees. 
Presented in the vignettes that follow are realistic scenarios that explain the three reasons for employee behavior problems.
Inadequate Aptitudes: Moe D. Blooz had a B.A. degree in musicology. Over the past several years, he’d worked as a flautist with a small avant-garde music ensemble called the Arithmiks. Moe loved playing in a band, but after 2 years of marriage and with a new baby on the way, he and his wife decided they needed better benefits and greater job security. A music friend of Moe’s told him about a marching band director’s job opening at the Rudy Giuliani High School (RGHS), located in his part of town. After submitting his application and waiting 5 weeks for a response, Moe was called in for an interview. His interview went extremely well. A couple of weeks later, the RGHS principal made him a great offer to serve as their new marching band director. Despite his excitement about winning a job with great salary and benefits, Moe was somewhat daunted by the thought of leading and directing a high school marching band. He worried whether he would be effective working with a large group of young musicians and teaching them choreographed marching routines. Unfortunately, after several weeks on the job, Moe’s concerns were validated. During his field practices for the marching band, Moe noticed his students were not readily adapting to his marching choreography. The majority of them appeared confused about it no matter how much they practiced the music or marched the routines. Moe’s instructional shortcomings with the school marching band soon became the object of jokes by students and fans who attended RGHS Friday night football games every week. As a result of the band’s struggles throughout football season, the RGHS principal, backed by complaints from the school board and booster club, made the decision to relieve Moe of his band director duties.
What happened to Moe’s promising career as a marching band director? Before choosing a new assignment for Moe, the principal directed him to have his aptitudes tested. He hoped that aptitude testing would provide insights into Moe’s strengths so that he might assign Moe to a job based upon his innate talents. The principal had read recently that aptitudes were the key to making the right career choice for people. Moe’s aptitude tests revealed that he scored relatively high in music-related aptitudes except for his rhythm memory, for which he scored well below average. Moe also scored high in subjective personality testing. The test assessor explained to Moe and his principal that Moe’s low score in rhythm memory was the main reason Moe struggled as a marching band director. Marching routines involve choreography that requires a strong rhythm memory aptitude, which Moe lacked. This aptitude deficiency would make it difficult for Moe to create viable marching routines. This score also explained Moe’s preference for avant-garde music, which often lacks a discernible rhythm. The assessor added that, “With a strong ‘subjective personality,’ Moe would most likely be more at ease working in small groups or even solo.” “Only people with a high ‘objective personality’ are comfortable working with large groups such as a marching band.” In summarizing his findings, the assessor said that if Moe had remained a marching band director, he undoubtedly would have continued to struggle because of his aptitude deficiencies. The good news, according to the assessor, was that Moe had very high scores in the math-related aptitudes, which gave him a number of options in the field of teaching. With these insights regarding Moe’s aptitude strengths, his principal decided to reassign Moe to tutoring students struggling with their math studies. He also pulled some strings and got Moe a secondary job as the sound engineer for the school district’s all-star orchestra. This combination of assignments gave Moe the opportunity to be successful in a teaching career, mostly in an individual capacity, while enabling him to work with the music he so enjoyed. In the end, his principal gained a highly motivated math tutor and sound engineer while sparing Moe the embarrassment of being known as that “awful” band director.
Conflicting Goals: Ben E. Kownter worked 5 years for Candy Lovers Supreme, Inc. (CLSI), a specialty confections manufacturer. Ben had been employed there since graduating from high school, progressing from shipping clerk to apprentice cook in the production department. Although he felt obligated to CLSI for providing him a good job over the years, Ben had aspirations to launch an accounting practice upon graduating from college later that year. The prospect of owning his own business had been his life-long dream. With that dream so close to being realized, Ben began devoting more and more of his time, both at home and at work, to planning the launch of his new accounting practice. It became such a preoccupation that even his supervisor, the chief cook, noticed that both the quality of Ben’s work and his job attendance were faltering. In addition, he seemed to be arguing more with co-workers over trivial issues. After several weeks had passed with further deterioration in Ben’s work behaviors, the chief cook initiated formal performance counseling.
During these biweekly meetings, his boss learned much about Ben including his ambitions to become a professional accountant. This clearly was a situation where an employee’s life goals had changed, putting them in conflict with the CLSI’s organizational goals. Ben and his supervisor both concluded that he would be a lot happier pursuing his dream of becoming an accountant earlier than planned. Ben took a leap of faith and found a business partner willing to help finance the start-up of his accounting business several months prior to graduation. It turned out to be the best decision he’d ever make. As for CLSI, with Ben’s early departure, the chief cook was able to recruit a new apprentice cook from elsewhere in the company and thus replace a problem employee with a highly motivated, top-performing team member.
Cultural Incompatibility: Olive Branchette was an honors graduate in journalism from a prestigious Ivy League school. Upon graduation, she secured her first job as an advertising copywriter in the marketing department of a large defense contractor, Dyna-might Corp. (DC). During her first 2 years, Olive enjoyed her advertising work immensely, finding it both challenging and fulfilling. However, early in her third year, she began to experience difficulty motivating herself for work. It got so bad over the next few months that Olive took a week’s worth of sick days shortly after failing to complete several important marketing projects. This concerned her manager greatly because, in the past, Olive had been so reliable and able to complete such projects easily. He decided to take action. After consulting with HR, he initiated formal performance counseling with Olive. Through their biweekly counseling process, he soon learned Olive was unhappy about working in the defense industry. She had grown up in a family with strong antiwar sentiments and a bias against military action of any kind for any reason. At every holiday gathering, her family chided her about “working for those warmongers.”
Recognizing Olive’s mindset as the primary reason for her poor attitude on the job, her manager made the decision to help her face the issue head on. He proceeded to help Olive see that because her personal philosophy differed so greatly from DC’s mission and culture as a defense contractor, she would do herself no favors by continuing her employment there. In a way, Olive was relieved because her anxieties had been wearing on her for a long time. Now that everything was out in the open, she could deal with it constructively. With this newfound awareness, Olive tendered her resignation a week later and began looking for a new job more aligned with her and her family’s core beliefs. Several weeks after that, she began working as the editor of a worldwide disaster relief newsletter. Her values were now aligned with her employer, her co-workers, and her family. This made going to work a joy once again for Olive. Her DC manager was also pleased because her decision to move on enabled him to replace a problem employee with a motivated team member from another department. In the end, Olive’s self-discovery turned out to be a win for her, a win for DC, and a win for disaster relief.
Now that you’ve got a better understanding of the reasons for problematic employee behaviors, you can more easily recognize those employees whose behavioral issues require intervention. Fundamentally, most workers want to do a good job, but the workplace is an imperfect world. As demonstrated in the previous vignettes, even formerly successful employees can unexpectedly turn into problem employees. Experienced managers know that problem behaviors, if not corrected, have the potential to spread across their organization and negatively influence both good and bad employees. Consequently, a manager must take decisive action to stop the bad behavior quickly in order to minimize the damage to other employees. In the animal kingdom, when the behavior of a member threatens the pack, it’s banished or otherwise prevented from harming the main group. This same natural law applies in the workplace. When an employee’s bad behavior threatens the team, the manager must act quickly to rehabilitate or remove that employee in order to eliminate the threat to his team. 
What all of this makes clear is the critical importance of hiring well. If you hire well, you substantially reduce the probability of a good employee going bad. Why? Because when you hire employees who possess the correct aptitudes for the job being filled, whose career objectives are aligned with the organization’s goals, and whose personal philosophy matches the organization’s culture, you get employees who are best suited to perform the job well over the long haul. In particular, when an employee possesses the correct aptitudes for a given job, he’ll naturally excel in that job. If a person excels in his work day after day, he’ll be joyful and more satisfied with his employment than someone who lacks the aptitudes for that job and, as a result, struggles to perform it. Furthermore, when a person struggles in his job, he’ll eventually become dissatisfied and act out with bad behaviors or simply stop performing up to his manager’s standards.
So, when hiring employees, make sure that you and your HR recruiter choose candidates that satisfy the three reasons explained above, but, most importantly, possess the strongest aptitudes for the jobs they’ll be performing. By selecting employees using aptitude testing, you’ll hire the best people for the work at hand while ensuring your team is made up of people who will be stable and happy and not go bad at some point down the road. 
 Natural Born Manager (Indianapolis, IN: Dog Ear Publishing, 2009), pgs. 251-5.
 For more information on human engineering science and to learn what scientific aptitude testing has done to improve the careers of people just like you, visit the Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation homepage.
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